Traffic Tech
Technology Transfer Series

Number 177May 1998


Individuals who never wear their seat belts make up only a small percentage of licensed drivers. Much more common are persons who buckle up on some occasions, but not on others. If we want to increase the national seat belt usage rate, getting these part time users to use seat belts full time may be more effective than transforming non-users into users.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored a study to identify strategies to accomplish that objective. Increasing Seat Belt Use Among Part Time Users: Messages and Strategies is a guide for safety professionals who develop and implement multi-faceted campaigns using appropriate messages and communication strategies.

Information for the guide comes from a series of focus groups conducted with young males and females, ages 16-20 and 25-34, who acknowledged that they wore their seat belts only part of the time. The researchers conducted the focus groups in Kansas, South Dakota, and Ohio. Data from NHTSA's national telephone surveys (see Traffic Tech 166, Dec 1997) suggested that these states may be above the norm in their percentages of certain categories of part-time users.

It's a Matter of Risk Perception
When asked about the times they use their seat belts, the focus group participants recalled instances where they perceived greater risk or danger. Common situations included driving in inclement weather, highway or high speed driving, driving in unfamiliar areas, driving in construction zones, seeing dangerous drivers, or seeing police.

They did not wear their seat belts, however, when there were no danger cues. These situations included driving short distances or in familiar places, and in good weather. In the absence of a perceived threat, they tended not to focus on safety or their driving. Their thoughts wandered elsewhere, such as to what they planned to do when they reached their destination.

Interestingly, the young males and females readily agreed that most crashes occur close to home, and the majority admitted that they had been in crashes, some in more than one. Thus, part time users know that there is risk attached to the seemingly safe short drive, but are not motivated to attend to the risk.

In-Vehicle Reminders
Comments from the focus group participants suggested that current in-vehicle reminders (buzzers, chimes, lights) to wear seat belts are largely ineffective. People become accustomed to them and, if the warning is noticeable and continuous, they may try to disconnect them. The only in-vehicle reminder device considered likely to be effective was an interlock. However, the groups immediately declared interlocks unacceptable for safety and other reasons.

Dangerous Other Drivers
The participants said they are confronted regularly with annoying and dangerous behavior by other drivers, even on short drives. Both the young males and females remarked that promoting the danger posed by other drivers' unsafe driving could be successful in motivating more seat belt use.

Children are Powerful Motivators
All groups except for the adolescent males said images of young children got their attention. They identified with arguments that you are not fully protecting your child if you do not protect yourself, and that it is important to be a good role model to children.

  Samples of General Guidelines to Promote Safety Belt Use
  • Part time seat belt use is a function of risk perception. Messages should seek to increase anxiety about these risks to change behavior. Different target audiences respond to different cues, so a one-size-fits-all approach won't work.
  • Messages reminding part time belt users of the various inattentive, annoying, and dangerous behaviors of the other driver could increase motivation to always wear seat belts.
  • For young adults and teenage females, seat belt messages with child-related and relationship themes are attention getting.
  • For young adults, seat belt messages that emphasize being a good role model for children are appealing.
  • Teenage males and females prefer messages that are daring, offbeat, and politically incorrect.
  • For teenage males, visually graphic messages of the violent outcome of crashes are attention-getting.
  • Peer programs for high school students could be effective, but only if presenters have relevant stories and experiences.
  • A well publicized, continuous commun-ity program to promote seat belt use could increase attention and the use rate.
  • Nationally recognized personalities

Money Talks
The focus group participants declared that money talks and they would be very receptive to monetary incentive programs. They would even volunteer to have technological devices installed in their vehicles that record belt use (to calculate incentive amounts). Making this kind of device mandatory, however, would be unacceptable.

Economic Costs and Statistics Are Not Effective
The focus group participants were not impressed by arguments that increased belt use by the public lowers insurance and other costs. They thought a belt message could work from an employer if it was part of an overall wellness program, but not if the employer treated it as an isolated topic. In that case, the employees would interpret the encouragement as a demand, which they would resent. As part of an overall program, however, emphasizing seat belt use sounds more like the employer cares about them. The focus group participants were generally skeptical of statistical arguments supporting belt use.

Getting the Message to the Right Audience
What was important, with examples described in the report, was that messages should be presented in a context and by people the target audience could relate to. Keeping the belt use message in the public eye was also important and there are suggestions on how to accomplish this. The report discusses group differences that can affect program decisions and characteristics of a successful community program.

How To Order
Limited copies of Increasing Seat Belt Use Among Part-Time Users: Messages and Strategies (66 pages), prepared by Lisboa Associates, Incorporated, are available by writing to the Office of Research and Traffic Records, NHTSA, NTS-31, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590, or send a fax to (202) 366-7096. Alan Block was the contract manager of this project, email:

U.S. Department
of Transportation
National Highway
Traffic Safety

400 Seventh Street, S.W. NTS-31
Washington, DC 20590

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Traffic Safety Programs
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